UK (2014) Dir. David Mackenzie
Prison based movies aren’t always easy to get it right, since they are (primarily) supposed to dramatise the activities that take place beyond public view and not serve as didactic documentaries. That doesn’t mean that they have to soften the blow and protect the audience from the horrors which unfold on daily basis. At the risk of bragging I think we Brits have a pretty good track record in this area, with Alan Clarke’s seminal borstal based affair Scum (first a banned TV drama then a banned feature film) and more recently Steve McQueen’s impactful debut Hunger as examples.
We can now add David Mackenzie’s unrelenting but oddly redemptive Starred Up to the list of uncompromising cinematic punches to the solar plexus. You’ll forgive me if I regularly reference the aforementioned Scum in this review but there are many similarities between the two films which shall be addressed as we go on.
The first and most obvious shared factor is both have a teenager as the central character – Scum had Carlin (a career making performance from Ray Winstone) while here we follow the prison journey of 19 year-old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell). The main difference however is that Eric has been transferred from a young offender’s facility to an adult prison, “starred up” being the term for this punitive upgrade. Eric immediately makes an impression by earning himself a stint in solitary on his second day after accidentally injuring a fellow inmate and his reputation makes headline news.
While some prisoners are happy to teach the youngster a lesson some are looking out for him – one in particular being his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who is high up on the prison food chain. The reunion isn’t a happy one with Eric overflowing with anger but Neville doesn’t want his son to suffer and encourages him to keep his nose clean. Eric finds the environment around him makes it difficult to reform, even with the help of prison counsellor Oliver (Rupert Friend), opposing the prison governor who has branded Eric a lost cause.
The script from Jonathan Asser is based his own experiences as a voluntary therapist at Wandsworth prison, and is rife with bespoke prison vocabulary which many will find hard to follow. Old fashion terms like “screws” have been replaced with newer ones like “kangas”, which took me an hour to surmise this was kangaroos=screws! Inmates refer to each other as “Blood” or “Bruv” (or more often the “C” word) and this isn’t limited to ethnicity either.
Returning the Scum comparisons, Eric is a modern day more unhinged version of Carlin, both establishing their tough guy credentials early on to avoid hassle, although the latter uses more smarts and psychology than constant violence. Unlike Carlin, Eric has a tortured upbringing following his father’s incarceration, the death of his mother and other unpleasant events in life. This makes his ability to trust others and be trusted almost non-existent, including Neville, who tries a heavy handed approach, the only one a long term prisoner like him knows.
Surviving prison life for Eric runs concurrently with the reconciliation with his father which suffers many setbacks, largely as the “like father, like son” adage is very much a stark reality. Just as Eric is settling into his help group Neville shows up to share the experience with his son, only to flip out and ruin the whole thing for both of them. It makes for tense but painful viewing to see two people so physically close to one another yet be so distant emotionally.
Despite both men being violent, deranged convicted criminals with seemingly little in the way of redeeming qualities, we inexplicably find ourselves hoping that they can find some way to reconnect. Mackenzie and Asser manage to craft an empathetic story to offset the brutality of the violence and the unforgiving nature of the penal setting. Even when we know that Eric is in the wrong there are some occasions where he is clearly the victim when the punishment is meted out. It’s an odd dynamic to employ in toying with the audience’s emotions but an effective and though provoking.
As much as the powerfully realistic script hooks the audience, the centrifugal force of this film is the lead performance of Jack O’Connell. A mesmerising and incendiary essaying of a slight but angry ball of attitude, O’Connell makes the cocky youngster seem ten feet tall among the swathe of towering black fellow inmates, his presence burning through the screen. The key to this performance is the minutiae and keeping it natural, so we believe that behind the swagger there is a tortured soul.
To match this, Ben Mendelsohn’s Neville is an older version of Eric with a slightly wiser head on his shoulders but none the less short tempered and reliant on his fists to solve a problem. His performance is less subtle but more emotionally engaging once Neville realises he has to belatedly play the role of father to Eric, inwardly cursing the circumstances under which this occurs. Standing between the two is Rupert Friend as Oliver, the lone voice of calm among a cacophony of dissonance and aggression.
While the violence is unapologetically graphic and frequent and the narrative relatively straightforward and free from contrivance (outside of father and son both being at the same prison) the film hits hard as a slice of gritty realist drama until the final act which tips its toes a little too deeply into the melodrama pool, albeit with some affecting and plausible poignancy.
It might be lazy to suggest Starred Up is a 21st century version of Scum while others may wish to proclaim it as the UK’s answer to France’s A Prophet, and while both comparisons are valid, David Mackenzie has made a film which sits very comfortably and deservedly next to both. Challenging, thought provoking and vividly engaging Mackenzie’s film assures us that British cinema is still a force to be reckoned with.